One of the great stories to emerge from the Second World War was that of the British pursuit and eventual destruction of the German battleship Bismarck. By January 1942, the tale already began to pass into legend when a new threat, just as dangerous, sailed from Germany and dropped anchor in a Norwegian fjord. The same feeling of dread and urgency felt when the Bismarck roamed the seas returned with a vengeance the moment the first encrypted message reporting that Tirpitz, her sister ship, was now operational.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Augustus Newman
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Augustus Newman

Winston Churchill designated its destruction the highest priority as the military explored different ways to handle the threat. The conclusion they reached was bold, outlandish, even downright suicidal. Codenamed Chariot, it involved an old destroyer, several small motor launches, and over 200 commandos under the command of a 38 year old lieutenant colonel, Augustus Charles Newman.

Yet, Newman’s assignment didn’t focus on destroying the Tirpitz. It focused on destroying what could preserve the ship should she ever be damaged. It was a massive dry dock, the only one large enough to hold her, located up a river in the French coastal town of Saint Nazaire. Here lay the only ability for Tirpitz to maintain a presence so close to England. If it were destroyed, the Tirpitz would be denied an Atlantic sanctuary and would have to make the long trek back to Germany for repairs.

The plan called for packing a destroyer’s bow (The HMS Campbeltown) full of 8,000 pounds of depth charges using a delayed fuse, and ramming it at high speed against the dry dock at night. Then, Commandos on the ship would assault the dock area destroying the repair shops. Near the same time, the smaller vessels would deposit men to attack local defenses, bridges and targets of opportunity while sealing off the area. Once the mission ended, they, along with those from the Campbeltown, would board the boats and leave as quickly as they’d come.

For weeks Newman and his commandos practiced in the docks around England to prepare them for an operation from which they knew many would not return. To their credit, no one backed out, and as they boarded and sailed for the target on the evening of March 27, the 200 commandos and the 400 royal navy sailors escorting dedicated themselves to its success.

They reached the mouth of the river with little difficulty but the German defenses began to awake, as searchlights probed the armada and coastal guns started firing, hitting several of the vessels. The coxswain shoved Campbeltown’s throttles to the wall as they raced upriver.

Diagram of Saint Nazaire Harbor
Diagram of Saint Nazaire Harbor

With the dock in sight the guide boat swerved away and the Campbeltown, pockmarked with shell and flame, bored toward the dock entrance. Traveling at 20 knots the ship rammed the entrance gate sending a portion of bow skidding over its top.

Newsom and his Commandos poured from the passageways firing automatic weapons and hurling hand grenades at the bewildered Germans, cutting down scores. They hit their assigned targets, destroying them quickly. Those from the patrol boats did likewise, and as minutes passed, fighting raged house to house in the town itself, confusion mixed with gunfire.

Soon, realizing the mission had been accomplished, the order to withdraw was issued. Groups of men struggled to make it back to the boats. Most didn’t. But those that remained, knowing they were trapped, fought on for several more hours until killed or captured.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"
HMS Campbeltown the morning of March 28th, before the charges detonated

Newsom was one of these. He gallantly led his men in attempting to break out into open country until their ammunition ran out and they were overwhelmed.

In the morning of the 28th, under interrogation, a German officer mocked one of the Royal Navy officers, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie, saying: “It was foolish to attempt this operation with such a flimsy vessel. Did you really think you could pull it off?”

At that exact moment there was a bang – a very loud bang, Beattie later recounted. The destroyer detonated, killing several hundred Germans and obliterating the dry dock for the remainder of the war. The threat posed by the Tirpitz washed away as the massive structure filled with sea, carrying the smoldering remains of the ‘flimsy’ Campbeltown.

The greatest raid of all was over.

British Casualties

  • 105 Royal Navy Sailors
  • 64 Royal Army Commandos

Prisoners Of War

  • 109 Royal Army Commandos
  • 106 Royal Navy Sailors.

German Casualties

  • Unknown, but believed to be several hundred

British Awards For Valor:

  • 89